World chess champion Viswanathan Anand on the upcoming simultaneous matches he is to play with mathematicians and his interest in the subject.
You will be playing against 40 mathematicians simultaneously during the forthcoming ICM. Do mathematicians make better chess players… have you had reason to suspect such a link?
I think they would definitely have the aptitude for it and I think I can have some interesting games. Both areas require a lot of work, a lot of practise… you need to keep on learning. I think in mathematics like in chess, there are many different areas. The broader the chess player you are, the easier it is to be competitive and the same seems to be true of mathematics – if you can find links between different branches of mathematics it can help you resolve problems. In both mathematics and chess you study existing theory and use that to go forward.
You enjoy reading about mathematics. When did you develop this liking? Did you like mathematics at school?
I was reasonably interested in mathematics in school. Typically what happens is… when you start playing chess it takes up a lot of your attention. But about 10 years ago I found that the internet is very good to start learning about a lot of subjects. I am interested in Astronomy also. The internet gives you access to a lot of material and it's fun to sit and read. I go to something like Wikipedia and look at different topics… I find the subject fascinating. I like to read about concepts and mathematicians. There are also books. Of course I am an amateur — I enjoy reading about it but don't have the background to work on it on my own…
What do you think about the way mathematics is taught at school? What were your teachers like? Is there anything that you think could be done differently in the way mathematics is taught at school?
Well, nowadays it seems there's access to a lot of tools which can make math much more interesting. I wouldn't say school is bad — teachers have a few months to get the subject across and then you have to pass the exams.
I don't think they could have done it differently. But I think on the whole, the subject could be presented differently. Because it is very gripping once you start reading about it. Nowadays, as a consumer if you like, you find a lot of people have taken a lot of effort to make it fun and enjoyable. And then it's a blast. But in school they don't have the context to do that. Perhaps they should redesign it. But this has to be done at a fundamental level. I don't think it's up to individual teachers, of course they can make some difference.
Depending on how it's presented you could fall in love with it or it can turn you away… So much of modern life is built on mathematics and I'm not sure school really prepares you to enjoy this fully. Things like the financial markets — a proper grounding in mathematics could help the common man. I believe that if people are more familiar with mathematical concepts… it can help deal with modern life which is increasingly complex.
Are there any specific branches of mathematics that you find interesting? Why?
There used to be a column in the New York Times on mathematics by Steven Strogatz. I found that very interesting. Basically it's not a specific area of mathematics… if anything is explained well, it is very enjoyable. It used to cover a lot of topics. The column seems to be taking a break…
Do you think you would have liked to be a mathematician if not a chess player?
Yes … it is definitely something I wish I could have done more of.
(Rosalind Ezhil was a Ramaseshan fellow at the Indian Academy of Sciences.)